Tuesday, December 21, 2010

39. You are asked to do the impossible.

If you have never seen a graduate-level reading list, you may be in for a surprise. The largest part of your reading load is usually assigned as preparation for your comprehensive (or general) exams, but individual courses also require a great deal of reading. Reading lists are so long that it really isn’t possible for anyone but the fastest readers to read the hundreds of books and articles that are assigned in a typical graduate program. Part of the high graduate-school drop-out rate is no doubt the result of well-intentioned students making this terrible discovery the hard way.

Enormous reading loads persist despite the overall decline in academic expectations (see Reason 6). The reading lists are so long in part because of the unbelievable volume of academic literature that is constantly published (see Reason 33) and in part because professors are reluctant to shorten lists to a manageable length in a climate in which long reading lists are considered de rigeur. The consequence of this has been the redefinition of “reading.” A successful graduate student quickly learns that to “read” a work of scholarship is simply to grasp its basic argument (usually made clear in the introduction) so that there is time to move on to the next book. Retaining what you have read even using this abbreviated form of reading remains a challenge when you are faced with a list of 200 or 300 titles.



20 comments:

  1. People pass comprehensive exams in these humanities subjects all the time, so even though the reading list looks impossible the reality is that one can learn what is necessary. Learning how to learn and what one really needs to learn is a big part of the experience I would think. Anyway, in my field (and most sciences I would think) very long reading lists are not a feature. Most reading needs to be goal directed in my opinion - learn a specific technique or to do a specific research project or it becomes very difficult to focus and get anywhere.

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    1. With all due respect, then your experience does not reflect that of students in, for example, history. I have 4 comp sections and each section has 90+ books and articles. I am a genius for wading through the mumbo-jumbo esoteric crap that will be debated and deconstructed ad nauseum; the tyranny of the subject is there is never consensus; it is all relative.

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  2. i have a history professor who would assign a whole bunch of readings from early 20th century (out of date, out of print, out of theory) and he never even read any of them since the late 70s-80s and still assumes that they are valid for the class and appropriate for discussion when he himself has not read any of these 15+ monographs but expects his students to read em, review em and draw a comprehensive bibliography. it was utter ridiculous. how can professors assign students a whole bunch of work that they cannot even commit to?

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  3. I went to a humanities grad program that required TEN qualifying exams. Yes, ten (everything had to be done for Greek and Latin) plus two special area certifications that could involve tests. I passed those, then promptly forgot everything, because that's how tests work, no matter what level you're at.

    I like to think that the humanities was simply a trendsetter in this world of TMI: scholars were producing and supposedly reading far too much crap long before the interwebs. But now that we have both, someone really should figure out something constructive to do about it, rather than clinging desperately to the past.

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  4. I think what makes this post so pertinent is that the work load is sometimes literally impossible to handle properly (not just memorizing and cherry picking for tests) but the payoff is so meagre. You're asked to read texts no one else bothers with. If the reward was really tangible for this task, it might be seen as more worthwhile. Instead it's a case of "if done well, you get nothing. If done poorly, you'll be punished".

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  5. Reading and writing at the graduate level makes me nauseous and it is getting worse and worse the farther I get into my program. It comes down to the repetitiveness and tediousness of it all, a process that I cannot see myself being able to bear for more than a couple years, nevermind the rest of my career. All I can say is, I'm really looking forward to the completion of my degree.

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  6. While I absolutely love this blog, I'm a little unsure about this one. Part of the purpose of grad school is not only to familiarize yourself with the huge amount of knowledge that already exists within your field, but also to learn the skills of reading and synthesizing extensive materials in a short amount of time. Deeper reading and retention are still important but are reserved for titles that are directly related to your research topic. Reading like this may seem excessive, but it is a skill you need to learn if you intend on a career in the academy, or doing any kind of serious research...But then I never had anything like 200-300 title reading lists for my classes.

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  7. @Anonymous 4:24...
    Sure, there is the skill of reading fast enough and with enough comprehension to absorb a large amount on knowledge in a short time.

    But then there is a reading list where it is actually literally impossible to get through the amount of reading required in the hours that are given - there is a point where there are simply not enough hours in the day, and that's what I feel this post is addressing.

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  8. Fantastic blog, wow.

    I think the long reading lists are academic hazing.

    A very intelligent law school grad friend told me that he wasn't going to waste time with Law Review because most of the work consisted of spending hours upon hours triple checking citations in review articles. He described it as hazing because it was so redundant and pointless.

    These long book lists remind me of that. Professors *know* their students can't get through these lists, so they want to see a) To what extent their students will suffer in furtherance of their degree and b) The extent to which students can absorb a nearly limitless amount of material under the field of study; the more, in theory, the better.

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  9. I attended an undergrad "great books" kind of school that assigned a task junior year where you literally couldn't get everything done without forgoing sleep and social interaction. What happened? We call it academic burnout and alcoholism.

    However, I managed to avoid both bullets by accepting the reality. If it was impossible, and the professors knew as much, then I was going to meet the expectations. The real expectations. I can read just fast enough and I learned to skim the unimportant information and I became a superior note taker. Now, if only I could find a place for my nearly 100 pages summarizing Augustine, I'd be set!

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  10. Shouldn't you have already read many of them in undergrad? You are supposed to be prepared for your field...

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  11. I agree with the comment above me. I will be going through my general comprehensive exams this term. Although the list is long (70+ articles and everything under the sun from our MSc and PhD coursework to be read in three months) I have previously read about 50% of the articles and the others I have some familiarity with. Its not about memorizing articles, its getting a broad understanding of our field and the research that came before us. The readings prompt us to ask questions "why is this paper important to our field (or does it do the field a disservice)?" and "How does it fit in with the other papers I have read?".

    Although daunting, this will be the first (and only time) that I can dedicate three months to getting a better understanding of my field rather than reading so specifically for my dissertation.

    But maybe in t-minus 80 days I'll be singing a different tune :)

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  12. I remember clearly a graduate seminar on Victorian Lit I had in my Master's program that required us to read such a volume of text that it was literally impossible unless that was our only class and we didn't also have an assistantship. There were three levels of reading: the novel(s) we had to finish that week, the hundreds of pages of required supplementary reading, and the hundred pages of "suggested" supplementary reading. It was so much that many students began reading almost none of it and BSing their way through discussions.

    As to the two comments above about "having already read" these things... The short answer, in my experience in Literature, is no. There is no central curriculum and each professor draws on their own arcane and esoteric interests when creating a course syllabus. Additionally, there is an academia-wide crusade against canonicity in the Humanities, meaning that we specifically avoid reading things that we've already read before.

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  13. Your best bet is to stop crying like a two year old, and just get the work done. Maybe if the author spent a little less time blogging about how much grad school sucks,they would have been able to finish all of the reading list and graduate.

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  14. I finished an MA in US history after doing a BA in US history at the same school, and my reading list for the MA was almost completely different than my reading list for the BA.

    For comps, which I only had to take once, I was required to read 57 books and 9 articles in 3 months. I remember once reading 2.5 books in one day. I did it, and I'm glad I did it because now I know I can do more than I ever thought, but I also gained 60 pounds in the process. I literally read 20 hours a day, no exercise, and ate fast food because it was quickest. And, my relationship was almost ruined - not by the fat, but because I never saw him and hadn't for all of grad school.

    I opted not to do the Ph.D. because the reading lists were more like 200 books for comps exams, 5 years of the same craziness, and when I stopped to think about the lack of retirement savings, the cost of school, the low pay, the relationship stress, and the physical stress, it didn't seem worth it. I didn't drop out - I just didn't go any further.

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    1. you are the smart one...

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  15. My stress level and work load dropped once I figured out in my second year that I didn't need to read ever last word assigned to us. I would read the chapters that applied to my sub-feild or that I needed a refresher on.

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  16. The real reason reading lists are ridiculous is that they are created by faculty members who did their studies at elite/ivy league/Oxbridge, where as an undergrad and masters student, you have to write at least one essay a week with a large bibliography that you effectively skim read, and then have 1-2-1 tuition on that essay. I know because I went through that system then became an academic myself. Whoever said that older academics haven't read their reading lists for decades is probably right though - they don't necessarily have the time, because they need to do their own research and concentrate on supervising PhDs.

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  17. Yet overly extensive reading lists are not the worst case scenario. At least with a list one knows where the boundaries are, can assess what must be done, and can budget time towards completion of the tasks.

    Far more insidious is the situation where there is no list, no guidance, and you are told to teach yourself from scratch. Worse yet, the situation where you have to articulate some kind of project, assess its viability, budget time and equipment for it, and deliver, while dealing with a total lack of guidance. Add "manage teams" to this and it can get truly ugly.

    Also, sometimes the lesson is simply that the task is unreasonable.
    As a graduate student I once took an undergraduate course in engineering statistics. The final for the course was ten pages in length, chock-full of problems, to be completed in under two hours. A handful of students finished - barely - out of the 100+ in the course. When a department head queried the motive behind giving such an (overly) rigorous exam, the prof. teaching reportedly replied that the test itself was a lesson. Sometimes the task itself is unreasonable, and one just has to deal with it.

    That said, I am not convinced of the utility of communicating to people that a given (unreasonable) task just requires more than they have to give. It may teach humility, it may teach the necessity for better planning, but it also teaches an unhealthy fatalism and resignation, and discourages curiosity.

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  18. How to survive your M.A. in English: Close reading.
    I'm finishing up this May (and thankfully am looking to lock up a full time job after graduation!). How to get through everything: mark 3-5 points where you can say something decent. Use large words where small ones will do. Mention a barely relevant connection to another text.
    It's incredibly funny that the "life of the mind" stands upon a foundation of pompous and half-baked b.s. made up by students who are too stressed and overworked by academia to contribute anything truly worthwhile to it.

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